2016 Asian Champions League will seem a poorer place without high-flying Al Ahli

The sun came out in Guangzhou on Sunday, the first time it had done so in a few days, but by then it had already set on Al Ahli’s Asian Champions League dream.

Players from the UAE's Al Ahli walk onto the field before the Asian Champions League football final at Guangzhou, in southern China's Guangdong province, on November 21, 2015. China's Guangzhou Evergrande beat Al Ahli of UAE 1-0 to earn their second Champions League title in three years. AFP
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The sun came out in Guangzhou on Sunday, the first time it had done so in a few days, but by then it had already set on Al Ahli’s Asian Champions League dream.

Defeated the previous night by Guangzhou Evergrande at a rumbling Tianhe Stadium, the Dubai club departed China not long after their plans to become the 2015 masters of Asia checked out, too.

Bound for the UAE, to the relative normality of the domestic football calendar, to discuss and dissect what went wrong in the full glare of the continent.

To be fair, there was not too much that did. Ahli were simply up against a more formidable foe; one more experienced, more expert at getting the job done. Understandably, they struggled with the occasion, at least initially, in both legs, and they were susceptible to losing their cool when it called for calm.

Abdulaziz Haikal sent off in the first leg for a petulant slap; Salmeen Khamis in the return leg for an apparent stamp. Rushes of blood that hastened Ahli’s downfall.

As coach Cosmin Olaroiu said afterwards, lessons will be learnt.

They need to be if Ahli are to go one step farther.

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The future can definitely be bright, with young, capable Emiratis such as Ahmed Dida, Majed Hassan and Ahmed Khalil. Ismail Al Hammadi and Habib Fardan, despite the latter enduring a tough time on Saturday night, possess genuine quality as well.

They are allied by gifted foreigners in Kwon Kyung-won, Everton Ribeiro and Rodrigo Lima, while Moussa Sow will be available the next time Ahli qualify for the pinnacle of Asian club football.

They will hope that quartet are still around in two years’ time, for Ahli will not be back in the Champions League until 2017 soonest.

It is shame that, having come so close, they sit out next year’s tournament. It is a shame they stumbled through last season’s Arabian Gulf League title defence, finishing seventh.

It is a shame for Ahli, too, that Kwon’s injury-time own goal in June’s President’s Cup final allowed Al Nasr to triumph on penalties.

For now a Champions League without Ahli, without the side who supplied many of 2015’s highlight-reel moments, seems a poorer place.

No repeat of the late, late turnaround in the final group game against Tractor Sazi; no repeat of the head-spinning five-minute spell in the last 16 at Al Ain; no repeat of Kwon’s last-gasp redemption in the semi-final second leg against Al Hilal.

Ahli are correct to feel proud of what has been achieved. They flew the Emirati flag with commendable gusto.

However, there is real regret that they cannot put it right straight away.

Their trail through Asia 2015, and their talent, merited it.

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